After two weeks and about 15 telephone calls, Harlan Brown was not any closer to getting telephone service at the new home he’s building.
The problem? Brown couldn’t give GTE one basic piece of information: his address.
“I told the operator we don’t have street addresses here,” a flustered Brown said. “She said you have to have one. She couldn’t write an order for service without one.”
Most of the 10,000 residents scattered in vast rural Boundary County have no formal street address. The city of Bonners Ferry just instituted an address system about three years ago. Folks in the county still have rural route numbers or live on numbered and lettered county roads, such as County Road 62C.
The system not only wreaks havoc with the telephone company, it’s a pain for emergency service workers and delivery drivers. The only people who can make sense of the system are postal workers. The system was created by the Postal Service because of a lack of street addresses or even street names.
“It’s real tough to find people up here,” said Mike Weland, a former emergency medical technician and current county planning and zoning director. “There are cases where ambulances crews have driven back and forth for 20 or 30 minutes looking for someone.”
The sheriff’s department dispatcher often has to keep the caller on the line and give radio directions to the ambulance crew as they drive. “The dispatcher will say they see your headlights and you are behind the house or ahead of it,” Weland said. “If we had some postal workers on the ambulance crew we would probably be OK.”
In the last week, Weland has fielded about a dozen calls from frustrated residents like Harlan Brown. People moving to new homes are pulling their hair out trying to get new phone service, Weland said.
Part of the problem, said GTE spokesman Tom Borgford, is that service centers taking the calls are located all across the country, including Everett, Wash., and Tampa, Florida. “You can’t say, ‘I live in the red house two miles down from George or 12 poles down Oxbow Road,”’ Borgford said. “If they don’t have a street address, we can’t find them to get them service.”
GTE operators actually have a computer screen with special instructions for dealing with phone service in Boundary County. Because the area lacks addresses, GTE asks customers to give them the number off the nearest telephone pole or green telephone service box, called a pedestal.
That information can pinpoint the location of a residence. Harlan Brown said he called four different GTE operators and none of them asked him for the telephone pole number. Neither Brown nor the operators he spoke with knew of the special instructions. He ended up talking to the county recorder, a county court bailiff and Weland before he discovered the telephone pole number would help him.
He initially went to the courthouse because a GTE operator told him that was where to get his address. When Brown called back with a pole number, GTE had his service installed within days. “I was so disgusted. It was just ridiculous to have to have to go through all that,” Brown said.
“When someone new moves in, especially from a larger area, say Spokane, where you have street addresses, it’s quite a shock to them,” said Linda Ricketts, the Bonners Ferry postmaster. She has coached many new residents through the process of getting phone service.
Still, there is confusion. Many times the first phone bill for the customer comes to the Post Office addressed to a telephone pole, not a home.
Other delivery services, such as UPS and express carriers, often will pay the post office to deliver packages to Boundary County residents for them. It’s cheaper, Ricketts said, because the postal workers don’t end up driving around lost for hours.
Headaches with the current route system prompted county commissioners to appoint a committee last year. The group is supposed to recommend how to rename and address the county roads.
“I know it’s a problem,” said Commissioner Murleen Skeen. Most people don’t even know what county road they live on. And the current system, she said, makes it difficult to give directions to visitors and impossible to put in an advanced 911 system.
Skeen would like to revert to historic road names, ones that oldtimers often still use rather than county road numbers. Skeen lives on what is still called Camp Nine Road, which used to lead to an old logging camp. There are also roads such as Chisolm Hill, where the Chisolm family lived, and Ten Child Hill, which is, well, obvious, Skeen said.
It would take at least a year to readdress the entire county. Some resident’s don’t want the road system changed.
“There are people up here that like their privacy and don’t want an address to pinpoint where they are. That’s why some moved to Boundary County,” Weland said. “No matter which way it goes, we are going to have some people who aren’t happy.”
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